Ian Curtis of Joy Division

Social Grooming for Higher Primates – The Music (and What It All Means…)

Ian Curtis of Joy DivisionPeople often stop me in the streets and say, “Graham, you’re an aspiring author. You must have a killer list of songs you listen to when you’re working, right?”

Why yes, yes I do.

In my day job, I don’t listen to music when I’m writing, but I found for some reason it helped when I was writing the novel. Probably something to do with letting a free flow of words spin from my brain. As a faithful citizen of the Internet Age, I took to YouTube to find my fix.

See, I noticed that you could create playlists on YouTube. I can’t remember back for sure, but it seems to me it was a relatively new feature when I started writing the novel. At first, I just randomly searched for songs that struck my fancy, and started to just save them. When a playlist got too long, I started another. Nothing too scientific.

The search itself was inspirational, finding these songs – some long lost, some newly discovered – and writing to the music. Funny thing was, there were times where I was searching for the right word or feeling, and I’d get the answer from whatever song was playing at that moment. More than once, I’d be writing, the song was playing, and they’d intersect for a brief moment on the point of some emotion or twist of phrase, then carry on away in their own directions again. I could see the moment coming, and the words on the page would meet the words in the song at the exact right time. They were incredible moments of creative synchronicity that felt like the writing equivalent of watching fireworks or an aerobatics team criss-crossing in the sky above you. It still blows my mind when I think back on it. (If you’re a writer, I highly recommend trying it…)

There was some music I couldn’t play, like most Hip songs. They were distracting; I’d stop writing and just listen. So, it was a careful balance between good music but music my brain could play in the background like atmosphere in a restaurant.

The Gig That Changed the World…

Eventually, that song list narrowed towards what some (like me) call “Alternative”; the genre also goes by names such as “New Wave” and “Post Punk”, both of which are handy since the Alternative tag has come to mean something a little different these days.

To me, Alternative means bands like Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode. You might also argue its flashier – and much richer – cousins Duran Duran and The Police are part of that list – and I wouldn’t argue back. In fact, there are many bands that fall into this category or are part of the lineage stretching from June 4, 1976 to today.

That day was the Big Bang for several musical genres including everything that falls under Alternative. Some call it the “Gig that Changed the World” because it’s possibly the most influential concert of all time. The Sex Pistols played the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in front of notables from future bands such as The Smiths, Joy Division (which later morphed into New Order), The Fall, Simply Red, and the founders of Factory Records, which would launch many of the bands formed because of that night.

Why does that story get to me? I like the music, first of all. That’s important. But there is something very Knights-of-the-Roundtable-ish about 42 random people coming together at a random event and then getting hyper-inspired to go out and find their own Holy Grails. It’s surprising, too, how many of them succeeded.

The Definitive Quest Story (Stay with Me Here…)

Really, isn’t the Grail story every story? It’s the definitive quest, reaching for a goal or ideal that ultimately may or may not be important, may or may not even exist. That’s a rather nice way of summing up the human condition. And what are the knights left with when they all fail, and King Arthur gathers them all back to Camelot? They’re just left with each other, and (the ones who weren’t too jaded) perhaps some collective dream of what could have been.

In some cases, such as with Arthur and Lancelot, even the “each other” has been lost. Those moments, when they lose each other because of certain events, are the most tragic. How much control do we have over those moments? How do we decide between forgiving a trespass or banishing that person from our hearts forever?

The Arthur story is ultimately about Love and Hope, and the good and bad of both. A lot of Alternative music is like that too. Think of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, New Order’s “Blue Monday”, Depeche Mode’s “It’s No Good”, and The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?”. It’s easy to dismiss them as depressing. But listen closely and the emotions are much more complex. Love and Hope, good and bad.

I’m not suggesting by any means that Social Grooming for Higher Primates is trying to reach anything as lofty as an Arthurian Legend (unless perhaps the parts of Arthur and Lancelot are played by Rick Mercer and a rubber duck). I’m not even suggesting that I was consciously playing with these ideas when I was writing the book. But something drew me to Alternative music as fodder for the machine and, upon reflection, this Love-and-Hope-edness idea would be part of it.

The Point of This Whole Post (Had to Come Back to It Sometime)

In any case, I’ve gathered some of the music here for you (if you’re interested). These are a smattering of the songs I listened to while writing Social Grooming for Higher Primates. Not all fall under the Alternative banner. Some of the songs are directly mentioned in the novel. Others are Easter Egged into certain passages that were inspired by them. Some you may find directly reflect certain themes or ideas in the novel. Still others have special meaning to me, either because of the memories of writing the novel or because of other things in my life. These won’t be picked up at all by reading the book (unless perhaps you know the story behind them too – some of you will…).

But all of these songs have a positive feedback loop with the novel. They inspired me in some way, which inspired the writing, which inspired me to continue, which in turn fed back into the novel. A type of harmonic convergence, I guess you could say. I owe a lot to this music.

In any case, before this blog post becomes my second novel, I’ll leave you with my collected YouTube playlist, Social Grooming for Higher Primates – The Music.


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